Contact: Don't ZAP That Ad!

Just hours after deploying a test in 5,000 homes of his innovative MediaCheck system for enhancing and monitoring TV ad effectiveness, The PreTesting Company's CEO Lee Weinblatt enjoyed one of those "Watson-come-here-I-need-you" moments. "[The engineers] sent along a big beautiful e-mail that read 'It works!'" he says.

The MediaCheck gadgets register inaudible digital cues embedded in spots from 30 charter advertisers. The technology knows whether viewers fully view or zap each ad, and can even check whether viewers zip past ads on a personal video recorder. The device even bribes users to keep watching: A green light signals that the current ad includes a special offer waiting for them online. Families in Omaha, Neb. participated in the three-month trial.

MediaCheck stores the metrics on a USB drive or fob, which returns the data to PreTesting when consumers plug it into their Internet-connected PC. In return, viewers access a Web site with offers and downloadable coupons for the ads they watched. This may sound like a daunting multi-step process to the rest of us, but it's not fazing Nebraskans one bit.

Five thousand Omaha families self-installed their MediaChecks with only 32 calls to customer service. "They were much more sophisticated and open than we expected," says Weinblatt. In fact, a day after the May 2 launch, "we already had people marching into stores with coupons."

Some viewers connected their fob to the PC immediately after seeing their MediaCheck flash green. Several weeks into the test, 67 percent of viewers who received encoded ads had downloaded offers. Remarkably, there was no difference in response rates between households with and without digital video recorders.

Weinblatt holds many ad-testing patents and developed the technology because clients asked for a more precise understanding of when, where, and with whom their TV buys worked best. This isn't all about metrics, however. For Weinblatt, the goal is to make ads better. Advertisers will next test different creative styles that emphasize entertainment over the old hard sell. "Let's bring back some of the fun of commercials," he says.

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